Paul’s View of the Law

What is the Law?

In Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous operetta ‘Iolanthe’, the Lord Chancellor provides us with an interesting insight into English Law when he explains that:

‘The Law is the true embodiment, Of everything that’s excellent It has no kind of fault or flaw’.

Some two thousand years earlier the apostle Paul had made similar but much more important claims concerning the Mosaic Law. In his epistle to the church at Rome, Paul writes that the Law as a whole, including each individual commandment, ‘is holy, and just, and good’, Rom. 7. 12. In writing to the church at Corinth he suggested that the Law had an innate glory of its own, yet ironically it could not, according to Paul, justify a person in the sight of God, 2 Cor. 3. 9-11; Rom. 3. 28. How then are we to account for this apparent deprecation of the Law by Paul? Did he in fact set the Law aside or did he regard it as being fulfilled in the revelation of Christ? Put another way, did Paul consider the Mosaic Law a contrast or a continuum to the gospel of grace that he proclaimed? Do law and grace stand in sharp antithesis or are they parts of the same equation? Before we attempt to answer these questions, we need to establish what Paul understood by the Law and what he thought its purpose was in the economy of God.

When Paul referred to law, nomos, or to the Law, ho nomos, he usually meant the Law of Moses even though he only uses this phrase once in his epistles, 1 Cor. 9. 9. But what did he mean by the Law of Moses? In my view he understood this phrase to mean much more than just the ten commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai. He more likely meant the first five books of the Old Testament ascribed to Moses. This would include, inter alia, the unconditional covenant made by God with Abraham, circumcision, Sabbath keeping and the food laws.

The purpose of the Law to the Jews

The Law to a Jew was the most important part of the Old Testament and taught him what God was like and how he should live. JOSEPHUS emphasizes the importance of the Law when he says, ‘Let the children also learn the laws, as the first thing they are taught, which will be the best thing they can be taught, and will be the cause of their future felicity’, Antiquities. 4.8.12. The psalms are full of references to the greatness of the Law and the benefits bestowed upon the children of Israel, see Ps. 19. 7-9. Paul certainly regarded the Law as one of the many privileges given to Israel by God, and whilst it provided them with a great advantage over other nations, it also brought with it commensurate accountability, Rom. 3. 2; 9. 4; Gal. 5. 3. True to his strict upbringing as a Pharisee, and a disciple of the rabbinical teacher Gamaliel, Paul became a zealous exponent of the Law to such an extent that before his conversion to Christianity he openly persecuted the church. What then accounts for his change of heart? The answer lies in his conversion on the road to Damascus where his world was turned upside down. It is argued that Paul’s view on the purpose of the law fundamentally changed after his conversion.

Did Paul hold to this traditional view?

The problem then is how are we to view the Law if the essence of Paul’s teaching seems to be at variance with the purpose of the Law. If, according to Paul, ‘a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law’, Rom. 3. 28, then where did the law fit into the scheme of things? At first blush, Paul seems to regard the Law as effectively a major obstacle in the path of faith rather than a solution to faith, see Rom. 5. 20. Nevertheless, there are passages in Paul’s epistles where he clearly has a high regard for the Law. Was Paul merely ambivalent or can we find in Paul’s teaching an accommodation for Law and grace? Consider, firstly, a few of the positive and negative comments of the apostle in the table opposite.

The problem of the Law as a way of obtaining righteousness

As a Jew Paul maintained a great reverence for the Law. In an important autobiographical section in his epistle to the church at Philippi, he speaks of his zeal for the Law and how he viewed himself before his conversion to Christianity, Phil. 3. 5, 6. As regards righteousness, Paul had, in his view, never failed to meet the requirements of the Law, thus in legal terms he regarded himself as blameless. But later he realized that this was a righteousness of his own, or as CRANFIELD puts it, ‘That righteousness of mine own, even that which is of the law’ to which he refers, Phil 3. 9, is an illusion of the Pharisee’s heart (cf. the reply of the rich man to Jesus in Mark 10. 20: “Master all these things have I observed from my youth”, – an illusion supported by a constant tampering with the Law). Such a tampering with the Law of God the Jewish oral law largely was – Jesus bluntly called it “the tradition of men”, according to Mark 7. 8; for, instead of recognizing in the demands of the Law the absolute demand of God, by which He claims us wholly for Himself and for our neighbour, and with which men cannot live on terms of merit but only on terms of divine forgiveness, it sought to turn them into something manageable and achievable’, Romans, The International Critical Commentary, 10th impression 2001, T. & T. Clark.

If not for righteousness, what was the purpose of the Law?

If righteousness could not be obtained through law keeping by the best that Judaism had to offer, what was God’s purpose in giving the Law to Israel in the first place? Well, Paul’s answer to this would be that the Law had to be viewed in association with, or as an interim measure, a ‘go between’, to the promises made to Abraham, Gal. 3. 19. He would argue that it was never God’s intention to justify through the Law because the purpose of the Law, which was introduced 430 years after the promise made to Abraham was to be subordinate to the unconditional covenant, ‘It was added to make wrongdoing a legal offence’, Gal. 3. 19 NEB. It would stimulate sin and bring men under its tyranny until freedom came through faith in Christ. Paul develops this sense of tyranny by using the imagery of a disciplinarian to describe the activity and methodology of the law, Gal. 3. 24. The New Revised Standard Version captures the sense of the Greek word paidagogos in this way, although it is more accurately translated ‘pedagogue’. According to LIGHTFOOT, the pedagogue or tutor, frequently a superior slave, was entrusted with the moral supervision of a child, The Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians, Zondervan, Reprint, 1976. Thus his office was quite distinct from that of the teacher, didaskalos, so that the earlier English rendering of ‘schoolmaster’ KJV 1611, conveys a wrong idea. As well as his inferior rank, as in his recognized duty of enforcing discipline, this person was a fit emblem of the Mosaic Law. The Law could not therefore prevent the promise made to Abraham being fulfilled because the promise was unconditional. It did not depend upon human effort but on the faithfulness of God. Note here the classic allegory in respect of the two covenants and the link with the promise to Abraham, Gal. 4. 21-23.

Paul’s argument that faith is essential to obtain righteousness

Essentially then, according as J. N. DARBY states in his Expository No 6 Vol. 27 on Galatians, ‘The law is a testing of human nature, to see whether it can produce righteousness for God’. It was Paul’s view that this was an impossibility and it was only through faith in the work of Christ that men were justified before God. Paul is able to buttress his argument by reference to certain precedents found in the Old Testament, viz., Abraham, Rom. 4. 3; Gal. 3. 6; and David, Rom. 4. 6; Ps. 32. 1-2. Both these individuals were justified on the basis of faith, not works of the Law, in Abraham’s case before circumcision and the Law had been enacted. This was a major plank in Paul’s argument with his Jewish detractors, particularly those in Galatia, who insisted that salvation could not be completed without adherence to the Law.

Paul saw faith as fulfilling the Law not replacing it

Paul was not then setting the Law aside nor did he teach that it was contrary to God’s promise to Abraham. In fact, according to Paul the deeper principles of the Law are fulfilled through faith in Christ. This sense of fulfillment also seems to be germane to Paul’s argument when he views Christ as being the end of the Law. The Greek word for ‘end’, telos, in this context can mean not only purpose but also termination or goal. Commenting on this verse, Rom 10. 4, C. K. BARRETT says, ‘He (Christ) put an end to the Law, not by destroying all that the Law stood for but realizing it’, Romans, C. K. BARRETT, A. and C. Black, 1967. CRANFIELD sums up his thoughts on this verse by saying, ‘Christ is the goal, the aim, the intention, the real meaning and substance of the law – apart from Him it cannot be properly understood at all’, ibid.

Paul sees the gospel of grace incompatible with law-keeping for salvation

If Paul determined that the Law was realized in Christ, it is not surprising that he made himself very unpopular with certain Judaizers in Galatia who insisted that circumcision and other aspects of lawkeeping were necessary to salvation. His disparaging language may surprise us somewhat, see Gal. 5. 12; Phil. 3. 3, but the defection of the Galatians was an imminent problem for Paul. This accounts for Paul’s style of using controversial dispute in this epistle as he views the Galatians as turncoats, ‘being removed’ (Greek metatithemi, turncoat, Gal. 1. 6). To Paul it was simply incongruous that the Galatians were prepared to embrace a cause, which some described as good news but which in fact was quite the reverse. If men accepted the principle of circumcision and law-keeping as critical to salvation in Christ then for Paul this would make the work of Christ superfluous and was clearly a retrograde step, Gal. 1. 18. Israel’s inability in the past to recognize the glory of God shining in Moses’ face (even though it was a fading glory) is almost an exact parallel to the Judaizers’ failure to see the passing and limited glory of the Mosaic Law in contrast to the unfading glory of the new covenant, 2 Cor. 3. 7-18.

If Paul’s view of the law was correct and men were no longer under law but grace, did this mean that the law was no longer relevant? Could men now live as they pleased without any form of constraint? This was clearly of great concern to Paul’s critics who saw antinomianism as the natural result of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith through grace, Rom. 3. 5-8; 6. 15. According to Paul, superabundant grace was available to overcome sin, the power of sin was derived from the Law, and it found its base of operation in the Law, Rom. 7. 8-11.

Paul argues that removing the Law as a means of salvation does not make you lawless

Then why not increase sin because surely this would exaggerate the grace of God? Throughout the Epistle to the Romans Paul surmises that he is arguing with an imaginary Jewish critic who is constantly asserting that lawlessness is a consequence of Paul’s gospel. Paul however shows that teaching that salvation by faith alone releases one from all moral obligations, (‘You can live how you like once you are saved’), is a distortion of the doctrine of grace. He argues that grace is the supreme motive for obedience to God and inevitably results in holiness of life, Gal. 5. 13-26.

Paul insists that a life lived in the power of the Holy Spirit produces a life lawkeeping never could

In another autobiographical section of his writings, Paul possibly speaks about his experience of when he became a man under Jewish law at the age of 13, Rom. 7. It soon dawned upon him, however, that the very law that he thought would promote spiritual life became the means of death to him, vv. 8-10. But now in Paul’s experience there was a new force active, a Law that controlled the inward man, v. 22. This was the Law of the Spirit, which transformed legal requirements, met the exact standards of God and kept the flesh in check, Rom. 8. 1-27, something that the Mosaic Law could not accomplish. The Spirit manifested a very different crop to that of the flesh, see Gal. 5. 17-21, identified the sons of God and confirmed the characteristics of the true children of Abraham. Paul was now indifferent to physical circumcision, although when protocol demanded it or it was expedient to do so, he would accept the practice; see Acts 16. 3; 1 Cor. 9. 20. But it was not, as far as he was concerned, the sine qua non of salvation or a requirement to stay ‘in’ the new covenant. To Paul true circumcision was an inward experience not an external incision in the flesh, Rom. 2. 28, 29; Phil. 3. 3. He had given up the marks of circumcision for the stigma of Christ and he was now subject to the Law of Christ, Gal. 6. 2, 17; Eph. 5. 9-10.

Paul’s view of the Law means that men cannot be justified before God by its application. But the proof that a man is right with God is reflected in his faith in Christ alone (without the deeds of the Law) and by works that provide evidence to justify that faith, Jas. 2. 12, 24, 26.


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